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Martin Scorsese's biography of Howard Hughes' most productive years is distressingly impersonal and while any Scorsese is better than no Scorsese, "The Aviator" has the feel of a debt being repaid to Miramax for making "Gangs Of New York". His commitment seems so low-level that what used to be a deliciously rigorous style here seems reduced to a series of trick shots that have less to do with burnishing an impression than with going through the motions of creating something merely impressive. The only time Scorsese appears engaged is in the first third in which Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) directs the aviation picture "Hell's Angels" and then tussles with censors with a frenzy reminiscent of the director himself. The rest of the film evolves into a "movie" movie with real characters portrayed by actors who act as if they're in a movie (particularly Oscar-baiting Cate Blanchett, as Katherine Hepburn, who appears to have watched "The Philadelphia Story" one too many times). It takes DiCaprio almost two-thirds of the picture to discover Hughes but he finally does as he ages into a deeply troubled hermit who still can muster the courage to vanquish the foes, Senator Ralph Owen Brewster (a very good Alan Alda) and Pan Am head Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin), which have conspired to break him. In Hughes' later years, DiCaprio bears a definite resemblance to him, but it's also at this point that he bears a striking resemblance to the young Orson Welles, which further connects to the film's thematic links-and, it would appear, Scorsese's way of passing the time for most of the film-to "Citizen Kane": John Logan's workman, easy-solution script (he blames Hughes' mother) attempts to portray him as a rich kid whose upbringing has traumatized him into an obsessive who lives to control the lives around him; and I swear Howard Shore's score seems at times to purloin Bernard Herrmann's. All that seems to be missing is Rosebud. Entertaining and over-sized but not particularly memorable-you get the sense it started receding from Scorsese's memory after the premiere.
Wes Anderson's vanity project finds him regressing from the perceptive dissertation on American families that was "The Royal Tenenbaums" to the arch callowness of its precursor "Rushmore" and the result is a slight, intermittently amusing picture that dares you to get it but smugly predicts you won't. It's droll to a fault, with no real perception behind its drollness; in fact, there seems to be little worth examining behind its mellow cynicism. Bill Murray (cashing in on the world-weariness that made him so sympathetic in "Lost In Translation") plays a fading Jacques Cousteau-like documentation who rounds up his quirky crew for a voyage to find the mysterious "jaguar shark" that has killed his partner (Seymour Cassel); joining him is a young man who may be his bastard son (Owen Wilson) and a journalist (Cate Blanchett) on whom both father and alleged son develop designs. Anderson is content to let this loose framework remain unexplored in order to push his loopy characters and offbeat sidebars to the forefront and while some of the performers are admittedly funny (especially Willem Dafoe, who, from "Wild At Heart" to "Shadow Of The Vampire", always seems to be able to bring the audience in on the joke; and Anjelica Huston, whose deadpan is truly in sync with Anderson), whole sections of the film-such as an assault on the ship by Filipino pirates and the rescue of hostages-appear to be crafted as mere indulgences to be celebrated for their homage-filled zaniness. Anderson has a good eye for staging what he wants and, given something to say, it's clear he can make an impact. But it's also possible his time to leave a mark may have come and gone. The cute underwater effects are by Henry Selick and Robert D. Yeoman's cinematography is quite good, moving from exquisite, colorful clarity for the interpersonal scenes to gritty and grainy for the mockingly-staged "action" sequences.
Robert Zemeckis' self-indulgent, narcissistic masterpiece is entirely computer-animated and the enormous expense is all right up there on the screen, every penny of it. It's consistently in your face and (at least when seen on an IMAX screen in 3-D) frequently overwhelming--it's presented in a relentlessly showoffy manner. But it's also completely heartfelt and as moving as Zemeckis' best work, the sublime 'Cast Away' (itself one of the finest American films of the decade). The specialized CGI bravura is clearly the thing here, with well-thought, exciting and cleanly realized set pieces that take the nascent technical form to the limit. (A short section involving a floating train ticket is one of the most brilliantly realized examples of animation-any animation-ever created.) Based on the cherished children's book by Chris Van Allsburg in which a young boy who has ceased to believe in the magic of Santa Claus is whisked away on the titular train to the North Pole to restore his faith, it will delight and dazzle children of all ages and religious persuasions. But Zemeckis has become one of cinema's most sincere seekers and he concludes the film with a bittersweet questioning of the faith he has asked his audience to accept, noting that time--his primary passion in 'Cast Away'--and adulthood require the magic of innocent conviction to fade and be recalled simply as one of the components necessary to shape a life. Tom Hanks plays five roles that have been animated and they're some of the best he's played in quite a while, particularly the loving, no-nonsense Conductor that allows him to layer a humorously transparent veil of gruffness over the honest compassion he has styled his career upon. The magnificent Deco grandeur and elegance of the Polar Express itself and the North Pole workshops, by Rick Carter and Doug Chiang, fits effortlessly into Zemeckis' design of remembrance of things past. 'The Polar Express' should have no trouble being accepted as a holiday classic but time will reveal it to be what it truly is: the efforts of a master craftsman not only at the forefront of scientific methods to create art but with a yearning to explore the timeless qualities of being human.
Enormously entertaining, Zhang Yimou's dazzling epic manages to revel in all sorts of stylistic delirium while maintaining at all times a controlled sense of dignity. Part martial arts actioner, with enthralling, satisfying fight sequences, and part Chinese history lesson, Zhang paces his story (written by Zhang, Feng Li and Bin Wang) with a rushing torrent of sharp images sure to keep today's distracted audiences locked in (it makes sense that the film is 'presented' by Quentin Tarentino; it's precisely the type of movie he admires--subtle yet exciting--and could probably never make) while delicately unfolding the mystery surrounding the motives of a nameless loner (Jet Li) summoned by the King of the Qin province (Daoming Chen) to be rewarded for bringing down the King's three greatest threats. Aided by the peerless cinematographer Christopher Doyle, there isn't a wasted shot and the perfect symmetry of visuals and sound editing (a myriad of sound editors are employed) is as captivating as the story being told. Zhang has a great love for his country's history and its ritual--he seems proud to present the tale of the unification of China as well as the compassion and pragmatism of the people who forged that unification--and he trusts his content, rather than the emotions of his characters, to be his means of expression; yet when the performers do put themselves across, even the most minimal inflection (the slightest smile, for example) is devastating. With Maggie Cheung Man-Yuk and Tony Leung Chiu Wai, the soul mates from Wong Kar-Wai's sublime 'In The Mood For Love', as two of the three threats to the King; again, they're perfect. 'Hero' is a film to surrender to--you're aware of the joyful look on your face even as you're hypnotized by it.
This year's submission in the Tom Cruise Oscar grab is a stylized noir thriller from director Michael Mann, whose previous entries in the genre ('Heat', 'Thief') were bloated and derivative. Things aren't much better now: Mann's still derivative, though this time less of the subtle noir of the Forties than of modern gangster epics such as Brian DePalma's 'Scarface' with their razzle-dazzle nightclub shootouts. He might think he's making a small, intimate picture built on performances, but by encouraging underacting, he's actually oversizing the effect, with Cruise's megawatt star power unable to keep a lid on things; the movie gets louder and less interesting as it progresses. Cruise plays a hired assassin who employs a reticent cabbie (Jamie Foxx) to squire him to five various hits around Los Angeles. In writer Stuart Beattie's hands, there isn't much tension--you can see the structure of his screenplay from the first scene and the action set pieces seem baked in solely for Beattie and Mann to advance the dull interplay between Foxx and Cruise which spirals into conversations that inevitably boil down to the dreaded 'existential' despair that made 'Thief' and 'Heat' so unbearable. The film's meant to showcase the city's dark side but doesn't (Ken Russell's 'Whore' and Quentin Tarentino's 'Pulp Fiction' do a better job of that) because of Mann's fussy concentration on fitting Cruise into his visual scheme: he sports a short salt-and-pepper haircut and wears a gray suit, in line with Mann's sleek, blue-steeled, fluorescent building interiors (though certain scenes incorporate the neon that was emblematic of Mann's TV series 'Miami Vice'). Cruise is competent as usual, doing everything he can to keep his Vincent enigmatic, yet he only sporadically compels the audience's curiosity about his backstory. Foxx, as the driver, is better, though he's saddled with Beattie's caricature: his docile dreamer Max gets to be an outraged black man when he's able to seize the opportunity, which has the unfortunate effect of making what was supposed to be a brooding noir seem more like a self-actualization course.
Tom Hanks is technically proficient, I suppose, in this update of the 1955 British comedy, but it's perhaps his most indulgent role to date; whatever humor he attempts is lost in stylized tics and windy verbiage that never seem to expire. His role as the Southern-gentleman mastermind of a riverboat casino heist should flow effortlessly but isn't particularly engaging--there's no sense of amusing malice in his Professor G.H. Dorr, though he's portrayed, unconvincingly, as some sort of absolute evil--and he doesn't seem to want to connect with much of the cast (though there is some decent interplay with his nemesis, Marva Munson, the landlady whose home he uses as his base of operation, played in over-sized fashion by Irma P. Hall, bucking for an Oscar). The upshot is that Hanks' obstinacy actually slows the rhythms of the film to a crawl and you find yourself increasingly impatient. As for the film itself, it's another empty academic exercise from the Coen Brothers, with elegant art direction by Richard Johnson and clever cinematography from Roger Deakins (the camera angles get skewed as the situation gets darkly violent) but also a misanthropic theological overview: though characters fall from grace (into a garbage barge), the heaven they're cast from is an empty, ghettoized deep-South parish that appears unclean and undesirable. They also possess a cluelessness as to what's funny, smarmily assuming jokes about irritable bowel syndrome are audience-pleasers; and their attempts at surrealist humor (most notably the varying expressions of a portrait meant to comment on the proceedings) falls dismally flat. With a sour Marlon Wayans, Tzi Ma (whose tricks with cigarettes contain the film's most entertaining moments), J.K. Simmons (from 'Spider-Man') and Ryan Hurst as Hanks' partners in crime; they're severely let down by the Coens' indifferent treatment.
Writer-director Atom Egoyan's complicated, heavily-plotted melodrama about the making of a film illuminating the Armenian Holocaust of 1915-18 at the hands of the Turks dares you, with its important yet obscure topic, not to admire it. But it's a mixed bag. Egoyan is a victim of his own ambitions: so many stories tackle so many entwined conflicts--historical, familial, cultural--with such a broad swirl that it frequently drowns the viewer in overkill. Egoyan messes with your head by pulling all sorts of theatrical manipulations, with heavy cross-cutting between various plots and revealing motivations piecemeal; but he primarily operates by extruding a feeling of helpless horror from you--the atrocities committed by the Turks include the torture of children, rape and the act of being set on fire. Yet he lets you off the hook by allowing you to distance yourself from the horrors: they're depicted as graphic scenes from the film, not actual events. The effect, while powerful when you're watching it, is something of a cheat: you walk away devastated but a little angry at being controlled. Egoyan invests a lot of personal emotion in his film yet it's frequently obscured by fragmented storytelling; and his outrage at the end that Turkey has never apologized for its atrocities has the feel of a non-negotiable demand that he insists the viewer share simply by having viewed his film. It's tastefully made, with impressive set design by Kathleen Climie and solid performances by the prodigious cast (including Elias Koteas, Arsinee Khanjian, Christopher Plummer and Charles Aznavour), but it's talky without seeming conclusive (except in its political stance) and overly reliant on Mychael Danna's intrusive score.
Perhaps it was Quentin Tarentino's intention all along to present `Kill Bill' in two parts--how else can you explain the elaborate correction he performs on the first film's know-it-all attitude towards women? Where `Volume One' seemed to want to explain and ultimately dismiss women, `Volume Two' finds Tarentino in awe of them, especially his heroine `The Bride' (Uma Thurman), who, by the film's conclusion, has ascended to the throne that the director holds dearest: motherhood. It's an arduous path to that throne, going, as she does, from `natural-born killer' to loving parent but the respect that Tarentino gives the female mystique is as sincere and reverent as the respect he gives his cinematic and literary sources and it's part of what makes this film a masterpiece. The second volume is meatier than the first, with far more attention paid to the story and the richness of the relationship between `The Bride' and Bill (David Carradine, a perfect performance) which alternates between father-daughter, mentor-pupil and husband-wife. (Early scenes between them feature stunning close-ups bathed in warm sepia backlight and the chemistry is intuitive, palpable and instructive.). It's also somewhat less insistent on its revenge motif (though the battle between `The Bride' and Daryl Hannah's Elle Driver and its denouement is both films' high point). But the director turns up the psychological assault a notch and his ability to manipulate and terrify his audience is on a par with Hitchcock's. (Thurman's living burial is intense and agonizing.) As a filmmaker, Tarentino shows a remarkable mastery of his medium, employing, as he does, techniques that establish him as a scholar and not an imposter--the single-take reverse crane shot that frames the massacre in El Paso where the story has its' center is worthy of Ford and Peckinpah--and it confirms he's a true auteur who walks the walk: by culling from so many sources he's created a distinctive style that seems fresh and honest. He's also the only one who can execute it.
Call it the post-`Spy Kids' effect, perhaps, but Robert Rodriguez' return to the action genre he cut his eyeteeth on, while colorful and fun, doesn't appear to carry as much interest for him as it once did. Though you can still imagine the smile on his face as he made the film, Rodriguez doesn't seem to respect the genre anymore and the project, on the whole, really can't be taken seriously. But that doesn't mean it's meant to be taken seriously and damned if it isn't roaringly entertaining. Working, as has become his custom, as his own cinematographer, editor and film composer, Rodriguez may be consciously seeking to distance himself from his family movies (even though his guerilla mise en scene is evident in everything he does) by ramping up the nonchalant violence and craziness; he's not as imaginative here as he was making the `Spy Kids' series, though he continues to be equally as inventive in his staging. Replacing the setting-sun cinematography that made the `Spy Kids' films so distinctive with a neon that plays up the film's hipness (the soundtrack contributes staccato bursts of electric guitar to underscore the point), there seems more John Woo's influence than Sergio Leone's, with delightfully edited gunfights and explosions and off-kilter cinematography designed to carry you into the maelstrom. But there's a sharply felt lack of depth that suggests it's time for Rodriguez to put the genre behind him; he has a richness of talent to exploit in other directions. The extremely large cast of heavy-hitters appear to be in it for the fun of it though the primaries are well-cast: in addition to the returning Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek (from `Desperado') are Johnny Depp, Willem Dafoe, Mickey Rourke, Ruben Blades and Eva Mendes. Of all of the actors, though, it's Depp who truly gets into the wacked-out spirit of things--he's tailor-made for Rodriguez' tongue-in-cheek filmmaking.
Sofia Coppola's efficient yet quirky romance is a very good engagement of two mediums, the short story and cinema. Using the technique of linking her converging story (two abandoned souls meet and form a gentle relationship while adrift in a foreign country) with short yet open-ended scenes, Coppola stays on course and doesn't descend into the dull trap of exposition--she succeeds in capturing the essence of a budding relationship, not the deep, complex flavor of it. Her script finds a popular American action film star (Bill Murray) in Tokyo to do some advertisements for a whiskey company; he meets the stranded young American wife (Scarlett Johansson) of a photographer (Giovanni Ribisi) and together they stumble into a relationship borne partly of their isolation and partly out of growing frustrations with their respective marriages. For all the usual observations and forced absurditities about foreign countries (naturally, the Japanese are seen as odd and other-worldly, pale imitations of Americans), Coppola's script is smart: she has insights that belie her youth and she circles the awkward relationship, allowing it to sneak up on you; by the end, even though it's still awkward, it's become accessible and you can easily infer what she doesn't want to tell you. Coppola gets an excellent performance from Johansson and a superior one from Murray; she seems to have captured him at a vulnerable point in his life--he's so in tune with his character's alienation that it appears to reflect his current point of view and not merely a function of the role. It also helps that he's frequently hilarious: his deadpan confusion gives the film a cinematic boost that makes Coppola's film seem less weighted down by its prose. It's a gently lulling picture, with unhurried rhythms; you never suffer the demand to feel that so many modern romantic films constantly thrust upon you and though there's an ambiguous, huddled ending, Coppola openly invites you to share your interpretation with her.
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